Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Villainous Businessman

I just finished watching Sweet Land, a beautiful film about a German mail-order bride named Inge , who comes to America soon after World War I to marry a Norwegian farmer, named Olaf Torvik, in Minnesota. Most of the film I found moving, beautiful and authentic, but one aspect I found jarring: the portrayal of the local banker as a vile and evil usurer, a thoroughly corrupt unprincipled exploiter of every one and everything he touches--a Simon Legree. This sort of thing is so common in film and TV that it seems to obey some rule of script writing: you must include either a. the evil businessman, b. the evil government official, or c. the evil/lunatic/tragic victim American soldier. I've almost learned to completely tune this stuff out or else I wouldn't be able to enjoy any film or TV show.

But of course the greater message here is not just to vilify businessmen, but to discredit Capitalism itself. Early in the film Inge, while waiting for Olaf to pick her up at the train station, meets a man collecting signatures for Woman's Suffrage, who confides in her that he is also aligned with the Socialist Party in America. He shows up later in the film when the farm of Olaf's best friend, Frandsen, is being auctioned off for failure to pay his mortgage. The Socialist is seen trying to rally the neighbors of the farmer to somehow intervene by pointing out what a nice suit the banker is wearing and asking them if any of them own a suit like that. The banker alerts the local sheriff of the "trouble-making Socialist," whose deputies then forcibly remove him, while he shouts, "you see? This is how it starts: business and the law working together!"

It became obvious to me at this point that we are meant not just to loath the swine of a businessman, but the very system which brought about this tragedy: Capitalism. Business and law working together.

From the Socialist outlook, law should not work with business, but rather over business, its lord and ruler. Or perhaps a better word would be its tamer since its view seems to be that business is a ravenous beast that would devour all but the cleaver few who ride its back.

Perhaps no film exemplifies this more than There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day Lewis. The movie was taken from Upton Sinclair's novel, Oil. Sinclair was a committed Communist and devoted both his jounalistic and novelist careers to propagandizing against Capitalism and for Communism, or at the very least, Socialism. Daniel Plainview, the principal character of the movie, but a supporting character of the book, is nothing more than a symbol, an anthropomorphic stand-in for Capitalism itself. He is drawn as someone completely amoral: rapacious, avaricious, misanthropic, thoroughly detestable in every way. In Sinclair's book we are given a hero, the son of Plainview who repudiates his father and becomes a Socialist champion, but in the film the focus remains on Sinclair's two great hatreds: Capitalism (in the person of Plainview) and Christianity (in the person of Paul Sunday, a phony Pentecostal preacher and faith healer who is the nemesis of Plainview). The film ends with both being destroyed.

My first reaction to these anti-Capitalist messages in film and TV is disgust at what blatant hypocrites these filmmakers are, for while they apparently condemn the profit motive in others, they luxuriate in their own Capitalist bona fides. But my second thought is what utter economic and historical stupidity it betrays on their part (and I use the word stupidity rather than ignorance advisedly since being businessmen themselves they have no excuse). Take, as example, the very scenario portrayed by Sweet Land: the business and law working together that results in the repossession of a family farm. It was this "business and law working together" in the American Capitalist system which drove the unprecedented growth and prosperity of American agriculture. American laws affirming and protecting private property and the common way of thinking about private property that is the Capitalist system allowed value to be imputed to that property such that banks would account it useful for collateral and lend money based on that value. That money could then be used to improve the property, or fund innovation (such as the shining new motorized tractor Frandsen is so proud of, yet the movie only shows him using to give rides to his children). The fact that vast amounts of land in Latin America is held and farmed by people who have no clear title to that land and therefore can never use it as collateral for improvement is probably the single most significant factor in keeping these farmers in poverty, eking out a mere subsistence living--and consequently keeping their countries poor.

Consider another Capitalist market-driven innovation that greatly ameliorated the predicament of Frandsen so common to farmers of that time: the Commodities Market. At the time depicted in Sweet Land, and for untold centuries prior, one bad crop could ruin a farm and bankrupt the owner. My father-in-law tells me stories of how tortured his father was, a small farm owner during the Great Depression who had saved money for years working as a welder to buy his farm, constantly worrying about the weather, the fluctuating prices for his crops, insects, and a plethora of other variables that determined success or ruin for his farm. That was the life of a farmer. But speculators in commodities --universally reviled and reserved for special reprehension in film, by the way--came to the rescue of nerve-wracked farmers by taking upon themselves much of the risk and buying "futures", paying farmers a guaranteed price for their crops, on the chance that they will be able to turn around and sell that crop at a profit. It is not uncommon for commodities speculators to spend 5 or 6 years in a row in the red. Then along comes that one time when all the stars are in line and he cleans up, making the ubiquitously disparaged "windfall profit" that compensates for the losing years, and carries him over for the next round. And excellent explanation of this (much better than I'm capable of) can be found in chapter 12 of Thomas Sowell's indispensable book, Basic Economics.

The one exception to this opprobrium of the businessman was 1991's Other People's Money. Danny DeVito plays a corporate raider named Lawrence Garfield, a.k.a. "Larry the Liquidator." Now, don't get me wrong, "Larry the Liquidator" is portrayed as being every bit the unprincipled scoundrel as usual for a Hollywood film, but at the end of the movie he gives a speech that gives a fair--and impeccably logical--argument for the Capitalist concept of "creative destruction" coined by Joseph Schumpeter. When I first watched this movie almost 2 decades ago I had no interest in economics, had not yet read the books that transformed my thinking (Basic Economics, Applied Economics by Thomas Sowell, Free to Choose by Milton Friedman, and Money, Greed, and God by Jay W. Richards to name four). My thinking on economics at that time had been shaped by popular culture, so my head was filled with the slogans which they endlessly repeated such as "obscene profits", "unfair competition", and "corporate greed." Oliver Stone's 1987 movie Wall Street and its villain, Gordon Gekko, was the premier archetype of these bromides. So right up to the point of "Larry the Liquidator's" speech my emotions fell right in line with what I had been taught to think about such people: I detested him and everything for which he stood. But logic and reason are strange things. It's amazing how one rational and cogent argument can instantly shatter years of feeble emotional thinking.

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